Touch of Evil
With nearly 2,500 sex offenders in New Mexico, one might be living in your neighborhood.
By Jeff Berg
We are lying together on my couch. I recall looking out the window at the still bare limbs of the tall, sturdy elm that arched over my house, offering shade in the summer and a serenade from a couple of squeaky branches that rubbed the eaves on blustery winter days.
This day, sunny and chilly, became very different, as I stretched out with Linda. We had just awoken from a nap on a relaxing day, one that offered solace and quietude, far away from the rigors of our jobs.
I held her, front to back, in the classic spooning position, trying to decide what I should suggest that we could make for dinner. We worked well together in the kitchen.
I could not see her face at the moment when she said, "He touched me."
Puzzled, and brought back to the moment, I clearly remember saying, "Who touched you?," thinking it might have been my shy cat making nose-to-hand contact with her for the first time, after we had been dating for over a year.
"My father," she said.
Sexual abuse and sex crimes are rampant in this country, and New Mexico is no exception. Sexual predators are everywhere. They are not just in the poor areas of town or out on the farm. In my solidly middle-class neighborhood of Las Cruces, I could walk to the homes of two registered sex offenders within five minutes.
There are more than 685,000 registered sex offenders in the US, and nearly 2,500 in New Mexico. Amazingly, for a change, New Mexico ranks much lower in the number of registered offenders in the US than many states, even Hawaii. The New Mexico registry also includes people who committed sex crimes in other states.
Even in a small town like Silver City, the registry shows 21 offenders. Three are currently incarcerated and one is listed as "absconded."
Those numbers reflect merely the sex offenders who have been caught and convicted, not people like Linda's father, who was never arrested for the crimes against his own daughter, or others who are never caught or turned in for one reason or another.
Within the state of New Mexico, registration is required only for those convicted of a sexually related crime since July 1995, or for those who were convicted before then and served time or are currently on parole or probation. Sex crimes vary in nature in New Mexico, ranging from rape and incest to child pornography. There are no truly accurate figures of how many men are incarcerated for sex crimes at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, just west of Las Cruces.
I remember, 21 years later, the sensation of my stomach beginning to churn. Those three words — "He touched me" — changed our lives and our relationship forever.
Before she and I were friends, I had admired her from afar. Linda (not her real name) was tall, about an inch taller than I, making her nearly six foot. She had pale skin, an infectious smile, and a shock of red hair that was thick and wavy, falling to her shoulders.
Friendship became dating, dating became love, and the love carried with it an advanced degree of honesty and openness. She shared with me the cretinous activities of her husband — an alcoholic, gambling, non-working womanizer — and I told her of my history of making bad relationship choices, although my divorce rested pretty much on my shoulders because of my own past cretinous activities.
I like to think of myself as an intuitive person, one who can tell when things aren't quite the way they should be, and I often sensed that with Linda. She was holding back something, masking it with her friendly attitude toward all and her nonstop work ethic, which, last I heard, earned her a very high management position in another state.
In the past, I had volunteered at the local domestic abuse center, and part of our training was to help people talk about the hurtful things that other people had done to them.
"What do you mean, he touched you?" I asked.
She began to sob softly. "He would come in my room when my mother was working nights, and touch me. He would fondle my breasts, saying that he was 'getting me ready' for when I had a boyfriend."
My teeth clenched. My eyes watered. I had met her father, another cretinous member of my gender, when he and Linda's mother had come out for a visit the previous summer. He looked and felt creepy. He was whip-thin, with jug-handle ears and a deep voice, and was probably smarter than he let on. He smoked. He wore T-shirts that he "air cleaned," as he called it — hanging it on a hanger near an open window, then wearing the same T-shirt for several days.
I asked Linda some other questions, mostly relating to the time of her life when this happened. I tried my best to reassure her, to let her know what had happened was wrong, not her fault, and that he needed to be confronted. We sat up. I held her as close as I dared. We did not make love for several weeks after that.
Dr. Robert Cathey has worked at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility for 20 years. He is currently the Clinical Supervisor of Mental Health Services.
"Sex crimes involve a lot of plea bargaining," Cathey says. "Someone could have committed a sex crime, but may be here because they were convicted of residential burglary or extortion, for example. I've talked with DAs, and the reality of the situation is that the DAs are willing to do that to get them off the streets, and use whatever they can to get a maximum sentence."
This might seem like a good "deal" in some ways, getting the bad guys (and gals) who commit these crimes off the streets. It can also work well for the prisoner, Cathey notes, because sex criminals and those who commit other crimes involving children are indeed, the lowest of the low, even among the prison population. So, if a sex offender goes to prison for burglary — when, in fact, he also sexually assaulted his victim — chances are that his fellow inmates will not know of his sexual crime, and will not make prison life even harder for him.
Another surprising fact that Cathey brings up is no prisoner — not even a sex offender — is required to receive therapy while incarcerated.
"The majority of the inmates do not seek therapy, and New Mexico law does not require them to do so," he explains. "I still see clients, and it is a federal mandate that there must be one mental health care provider for every 100 inmates. But there is no legal basis that requires them to do so, and the majority does not."
There are more than 800 inmates at the prison outside of Las Cruces. Cathey's staff does have enough professionals on duty to provide help to anyone who desires it, providing an inmate requests therapy.
He shows me a workbook called "Starting Over," which is produced by the Department of Justice-Federal Bureau of Prisons. Worksheets posing questions, most of them simple, are used in an attempt to get inmates to reevaluate their behavior; other sections explain such things as the victim and family impact of a sex offender's behavior. The workbook is one of the few tools available to Cathey.
Ironically, the stigma assigned to sex criminals helps keep them away from therapy. If a fellow inmate found out that the therapy was for sexual deviancy reasons, further hell may be in order for that prisoner. "There will be many repercussions, from shunning to violence," Cathey says, especially for those who molested or assaulted children.
All the odds seem stacked against Cathey and his staff, as he explains what methods of therapy work best for these prisoners: "We only do individual therapy at this time, but research shows that group therapy works best for sex offenders."
And again, this is because of state law and regulations. The administration of the prison system has recently started to undergo some change, however, which may allow Cathey and other mental-health providers some additional opportunities for more counseling for cons.
"Research shows that those who do decide to get counseling do very well," he adds.
Cathey points out that there is no real way to profile a sex offender or potential offender. In general, though, they are often law abiding in every other way.
"They'll probably be more law abiding than the average person, more conservative, and the theory behind that is that breaking another law might lead to their being caught (for their sex crime)."
Although it's a common notion that most victimizers were victims of sex abuse themselves growing up, that doesn't match Cathey's experience. When he does counsel sex offenders, he says, fewer than 30% report being victims of some sort of sexual abuse when they were children.
Cathey emphasizes personal responsibility when talking to a sex offender. "I will be getting their personal history and working with that, but he will also have to acknowledge: 'You made a choice, no matter what has happened in your life previous to this.' The majority of those victimized were not victimized by others. Their major problem will be denial — they need to acknowledge why they are here."